Human beings exhibit little reverence for the sanctity of their flesh. In our eternal quest for aesthetic perfection, bodies are twisted, molded, plucked and burned in order to live up to unobtainable ideals. Unfortunately, though human desires can be appeased, they are never satisfied, and beauty is no exception. To quote Legal Professor Deborah L. Rhode: “Desires, expectations, and standards of comparison increase as rapidly as they are satisfied. (Rhode 30)
Undeniably, the female body is overwhelmingly and disproportionately subjected to such modifications, due in no small part to the pervasive desires of patriarchies perpetuated through history. This beauty mandate has left innumerable women aching for perfection in an era where the feminine ideal is more impossible to achieve than ever. However, it is not enough to understand the binding qualities of beauty practices in terms of the overbearing burdens they impose, because they are also crippling in the literal sense.
As one example, the ancient practice of Chinese foot binding as a beauty institution serves as an excellent model which exemplifies such immobilization of women. In attempting to decipher the bound foot, feminist dialogues have concentrated on its role in sexually objectifying women. Though valuable, this interpretation lacks a comprehensive understanding of the patriarchy which sustained foot binding and continues to sustain similar, modern-day practices like the high heeled shoe.
Careful examination of the two further reveals that the immobilization of women through beauty practices subverts their economic autonomy. The patriarchy both intends for and is established by these consequences. The origins of footbinding are steeped in uncertainty. What we know about the practice is that it originated around the 10th century A. D and was practiced for almost one thousand years before it was extinguished by early twentieth century reform movements. Bound feet were internalized by the Chinese as symbols of art and beauty, earning the title “lotus feet”.
The process of obtaining lotus feet was excruciating. In order to take advantage of pliable premature bone in the foot, binding most often began between the ages of five and six. Only the large toe was spared in producing the desired foot conformation; all others were broken, allowing for collapsing of the heel inward beneath the sole of the foot. The entire foot was then bound tightly in strips of cloth. Infection and gangrene was common; fatalities were not unheard of.
Even after placing foot binding in its cultural context, it remains unclear why women subjected their daughters to such pain. Anthropologists have offered several theories in explanation. For example, in his scholarly publication Foot Binding: Beauty And Torture, John Mao purports that “One theory is that women who had their feet bound were less independent and more able to be controlled. ” He elaborates by stating “This was a way to ensure that women did not travel away from that control because literally the pain was too great and debilitating to allow them the freedom to be free. (Mao 1)
It is this model of male dominance and female subjugation which is most pertinent to our discussion. Put into conversation with the work of contemporary feminists like Sheila Jeffreys and Andrea Dworkin, one can use this theory of the bound foot to explore its purpose in furthering the patriarchal agenda at its most basic level, through the physical and sexual subordination of women. Recent field studies conducted by Anthropologist Melissa ). Brown et al. have also produced data attempting to answer this long-standing theory on the purpose of foot binding.
In their 2012 paper, Marriage Mobility and Footbinding in Pre-1949 Rural China: A Reconsideration of Gender, Economics, and Meaning in Social Causation Brown et al preface their data by stating “It has long been assumed that before 1949 Chinese society was hypergamous —that most women married to a “better” household than the one in which they were born. ” Despite this belief, they describe “In our sample of 7,314 rural women living in Sichuan, Northern, Central, and Southwestern China in the first half of the twentieth century, two-thirds of women did not marry up. In fact, 22 percent of all women, across regions, married down.
In most regions, more women married up than down, but in all regions, the majority did not marry hypergamously. ” (Melissa J. Brown et al 1035) In an attempt to reconcile this data, which debunks much of the assumptions that John Mao’s preferred theory rests upon, the paper presents a more likely theory: that feet binding was a form of labor control. In their discussion, they write “We deal elsewhere with the question of why footbinding ended, which can be summarized by saying that we have growing evidence that footbinding was a form of labor control to boost the contribution of young girls to handcraft production…
We think changes in the larger political economy that threw spinners and other handcraft producers out of work explain the cause of footbinding’s demise. ” (Melissa J. Brown et al 1062, 1063) Here, Brown shows why feet binding must be viewed in an economic sense, whereby male pressures to conform to beauty practices are inevitably related to power dynamics observed in labor, production, or service. These implications are unconsidered by Jeffreys and Dworkin, who recognize issues and demonstrate concern only in regards to foot binding’s disabling, physical harm, and sexual objectification of women.